Don't Even Go There—Travel Writing for the Rest of Us

Even if the world is your oyster, you can still chip a tooth on its shell. While travel magazines feature exotic locales of breathtaking beauty, we expose sites so depressing that no traveler this side of Edgar Allan Poe would venture there without a tub-load of tranquilizers. Take Las Vegas (please) and the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet line at Sam’s Town. That's the world we explore at Don’t Even Go There.

On this site, we tell of places we’ve visited but wish we hadn’t. We reveal vacation plans gone awry and relate horror stories from the road best abandoned. These true stories reflect where we’ve chosen to go. We only have ourselves to blame. We rarely needed to exaggerate—the truth really is stranger than a Dan Brown novel.

Don’t Even Go There: travel tips for those of us who aren’t escorted by security guards, pampered by wealthy benefactors, or provided a generous per diem. This blog is for seasoned travelers and armchair tourists who want the real world first-hand and head-on, with all its drama, horror, and humor. You’ll laugh at us, cry with us, and decide to stay home more often.

20 December 2009

Quote of the Month

We’re not your typical drug-addled Americans. In fact, we hardly ever do drugs, not anymore anyway. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t dabble back in the day. And really, the drug culture is everywhere you look in the United States, so it’s kind of difficult to ignore. Sometimes, you just have to roll with it. Which is what we hope you do for this month’s quote.
“Whenever we’d tell our family and friends about our urge to travel to parts unknown, someone would invariably tell us, ‘You just think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.’ That always made us pause and reflect on the honest reasons for our journeys. It took us many years and many miles to figure out that saying had nothing to do with marijuana.”

Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

13 December 2009

A Trip on the Subway

Once every blue moon—really, about as often as it snows in Las Vegas or the sun shines in Seattle—we do something completely stupid. It’s not that we started out with good intentions and everything turned out wrong. No. It’s just plain, damn stupid. Idiotic. Dumb. It flies in the face of common sense. Of course, it’s even worse when we do something like this away from home. Welcome to our world. —MB & JS
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One frigid night in Munich, Germany, we attended a party along with some friends a few subway stops from our apartment building. After the party, sometime after two in the morning, we stumbled outside to discover we’d missed the night’s final subway run. What to do? We were all students, way too poor to spring for a taxi.

Then we noticed the gate to the subway station hung open and unlocked. Like an invitation from a warm neighbor, we couldn’t refuse. Flying down the unmoving escalators, we burst into the station with an explosion of raucous noise. We howled; we whistled; we sang. It was ugly.

After the thrill faded, a friend asked, “Hey, why not follow the tracks? It’s only two stops.” Though it might sound like a crazy idea now in the sober light of day, we recognized at the time both the need to get home and the opportunity for adventure. So one by one, we jumped down onto the tracks.

We left the station lights behind and headed into the tunnel. Darkness consumed us. The soot-black walls swallowed all light; we couldn't see three feet in any direction. The air grew heavy with the stench of decay. Like bats, we used our aural senses to proceed when our vision failed us. We maintained a cautious pace, keeping away from the third rail. We were drunk, but not suicidal.

As we stepped over the wooden railroad ties, our senses on alert, anything seemed possible.

A light appeared ahead, like an angel descending into Hell to save us from our own stupidity. As we neared, we realized it was just the next subway station. We stormed past, shouting our hellos and fuck-yous at the security cameras, and dove back into the darkness of the tunnel. This time, our eyes adjusted more quickly.

Shortly after, we stumbled on the tracks. We found ourselves heading up a gentle incline, the tracks rising to meet our steps. Of course! Our stop was above ground. As we scrambled up the slope, so near our destination, our friend in front shouted, “A subway car!”

What a stupid thing to say to a bunch of drunks on the tracks after dark. We all nearly dove for cover.

But we noticed that there was indeed an empty subway train sitting to our left. Nestled into the hill on a level rail between the north- and south-bound tracks, it extended into a tunnel. The slope allowed us to climb on top of the spare train, so we did. How often do you get the chance to be on the roof of a subway car? It was like being in a movie.

The roof curved down only at the very edges, so the surface felt safe, sturdy: solid German engineering. Halfway down the car, a solid partition hung down from the tunnel’s ceiling, partially blocking the way. Ducking under it, one of us (and we won’t say which one) peered beyond the partition into what looked like an endless subterranean vault. Was that a light at the end of the tunnel? I didn’t know, but it seemed funny at the time. I continued along the roof, walking upright, squinting at that light.

The next thing I knew, I had bounced off the car’s huge metal coupling and landed in the gravel, on my feet, like a cat. It took me a moment to realize I had just fallen off the subway car’s roof, in the space between the cars.

I fell straight down because I possessed all the flexibility of a diluted mind and a drunken body. When I bounced off the coupling feet-first, my knees bent, absorbing the shock. My body acted instinctively. My mind didn’t have time to panic. So I landed safely, without a scratch.

Had I been sober, I might have landed in stiff-legged fear and broken an ankle. I might have lurched forward and not survived the fall. I might have done any number of sensible things and killed myself. Then again, walking on the top of a subway car in the dark, drunk off my ass is not the most sensible thing I’ve ever done.

Munich: it looks really nice from up here . . .

Lessons Learned: Did God protect us that night? We’re not religious by nature, but we still don’t know even after all these years. We did, however, learn a very important lesson: when you do something seriously foolish, do it with style, verve, and lots of alcohol. It’ll give you a story to write about later. Assuming you survive.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Munich “Franz Josef Strauss” Airport
Native Population: 1,400,000
Normal Attractions: Fast, efficient subway service to museums, fine dining, shopping, and many, many beer gardens and pubs. (For more comic relief about Munich, see: The Law of Gravity, October 2008)
Final Point of Interest: Like many large cities, Munich has a problem with subway suicides. Don’t drink and ride.

06 December 2009

Shaking and Quaking

When it comes to finding thrills in out-of-the-way places, we’re your men. Not only do we find the horrible in the ordinary, we find the exquisite in the unexpected. These places are usually located in places so remote or so foreign that it takes effort to find, reach, and enjoy them—even in this era of the Internet. We feel that’s our duty. It’s our responsibility to our loyal readers (and even those of you who just drop in from time to time). Here’s a real “ruby in the rough.” Enjoy. —MB & JS
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Who doesn’t enjoy a trip to the carnival when it rolls into town? The rides, the games, the food . . . it’s a smorgasbord of delights. Prices are reasonable, and you’ll never suffer long lines.

A local carnival offers simple fun that reminds us of childhood, when the Tilt-a-Whirl, Ferris wheel, and roller coaster used to thrill the bejesus out of us. Now, parents bring a new generation of kids to watch their eyes light up. It’s an American tradition, like taking your son to his first baseball game or force-feeding him his first beer.

Yet there’s something even better. Scattered across the US landscape (and indeed, throughout the western world), old amusement parks—the kind with permanent attractions like the Haunted House, House of Mirrors, and Dodge ‘Em cars—patiently bide their time, catering to small crowds in out-of-the-way towns with nondescript names. If you’ve never been to one of these quaint parks, you are missing quite an experience.

Today’s gargantuan amusement parks boast all the thrills the latest technology can provide, but in their haste to wow customers, they’ve left something at the door: a touch of humanity. The new parks herd customers from ride to ride, to wait in lines long enough to qualify them for a federal assistance program. These parks aren’t interested in people; they’re interested in profits.

The new rides, too, are high-tech marvels without a pulse. The new roller coasters, for example, try to atone for the long wait times by taking riders higher and faster than ever before. But the rush arrives at the pit of your stomach, not in your vivid imagination. You’re squeezed into a molded, cushioned chair with a padded shoulder harness that Hercules himself couldn’t break out of. You can get more thrills doing ninety miles-per-hour in a Cooper Mini in the midst of rush-hour traffic.

The old roller coasters, on the other hand, were invariably made of wood. Wood: the same material they make toothpicks out of. Waiting in line beneath the mammoth wooden structure, hearing the screams overhead while seeing the wooden beams sway and bend every time the cars whiz past, you feel like you’re looking up at Mount Saint Helens seconds before she blew her top.

Talk about thrills—when you step into an old rollercoaster car, all you get to more or less keep you in the slippery plastic seat are an old-fashioned seat belt and a metal bar four inches from your lap. You and your riding partner squirm together as momentum whips you first to one side, then the other. Talk about terror. You are never really sure if you’ll be front-page news or merely a shaking, quaking, satisfied customer. Film at eleven.

The Flyer Comet at Whalom Park in Massachusetts: Certain death or a quaking good time?

Riding a wooden rollercoaster is a thrill unmatched by modern amusement parks, and it’s yours only if you take the time to find those old relics before accident or government regulations shut them all down for good. To get you started, below is a short list of wooden roller coasters we’ve discovered:
  • Beast, Paramount’s King Island, Mason, Ohio

  • Boulder Dash, Lake Compounce, Bristol, Connecticut

  • Dragon Coaster, Playland, Rye, New York

  • Ghostrider, Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, California

  • Giant Dipper, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, California

  • Leap-The-Dips, Lakemont Park, Altoona, Pennsylvania

  • Raven, Holiday World, Santa Claus, Indiana

  • Shivering Timbers, Michigan’s Adventure, Muskegon, Michigan

  • The Cyclone, Astroland at Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York

  • Tonnerre de Zeus, Park Astérix, Oise, France
Lessons Learned: There are many, many more wooden rollercoasters throughout the world, often in small amusement parks that cater to a local-only crowd. Track them down and take a spin. Don’t delay. These rubies in the rough are date-stamped. Like the right to drink and drive, this thrill might not exist much longer.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 5/5
Vibe-Rating: 5

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Leave the airports behind. Drive.
Native Population: Mostly in small towns
Normal Attractions: Wooden roller coasters, other old-timey rides, cotton candy, hot dogs, and the smell of the old park.
Final Point of Interest: After you survive the ride (assuming you do), you’ll want to get right back in line to do it all over again!

28 November 2009

Locks, Stalks, and Broken Props

Talk about a good thing gone bad, this story epitomizes the luck we’ve had while traveling. It’s almost enough to make us want to give up our search for the perfect near-miss of a perfect vacation. Actually, this experience comes as close as any. Maybe you’ll agree. If so, leave a comment and let us know. —MB & JS
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Our favorite cruise story occurred on a ten-day journey from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Acapulco, Mexico. In ten days, you can really let yourself go: everything from the midnight buffets to the efficient pool service encourages you to eat and drink more than your fill. We’ve documented the perils of a cruise vacation elsewhere, however. This story describes a real event during a real cruise.

Our trip from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean included passage through the Panama Canal. Most people don’t realize that to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the canal, you actually travel southeast. We learned this—along with mountains of other useless facts—in the days before the crossing.

We rose early the day we were to enter the canal’s first locks. Practiced tourists, we wanted to see it all. We jostled with the crowd in the ship’s bow, ordering umbrella drinks and baking under the equatorial sun. Well, that’s not quite true. The equator was still a long way away, but the umbrella drinks made it more and more difficult to find on a map.

Our ship, which like most other cruiseliners looked like a floating hotel, sat unmoving in a shallow bay. Half-sunken trees near the shore appeared to be wading into the sea to greet us. In the distance we could see the first lock, a mammoth tub with doors swung open to welcome us. We could hardly wait. But wait we did. Wait and drink.

Before a cruise ship enters the canal, a Panamanian pilot has to come aboard to guide her. It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law. Even after the pilot boarded, though, we saw little sign of movement. Cargo boats and pleasure craft cruised past us to ride the locks while we watched in envy. The only movement on our ship belonged to the waiters and busboys, pushing food and drink like hawkers at a ballgame. The passengers, including us, laughed off the delay in a haze of alcohol. At least from what we remember.

Then the engines roared to life and we started to move. A cheer rippled through the ship like a pebble tossed into a still pond, growing louder the longer it lasted. But it didn't last. We sliced through the water for less than a minute, and then we stopped. That’s about the time we decided to head inside to care for our burnt skin and emerging hangovers.

Four drunken hours later, our cruise ship finally reached the first lock. We learned later that shortly after the Panamanian pilot took control, the ship hit “a submerged object”—a flooded tree trunk, unmarked on maps and unknown to local pilots—that damaged one of the cruise ship’s massive propellers.

On a cruise, it’s all fun and games . . . until someone loses a propeller.

Nonetheless, the show must go on, especially if you’re a Norwegian cruise ship full of impatient passengers. Powered by a single propeller, the massive cruise ship limped into the first lock. It barely fit despite the lock’s immense size (1,000 feet long by 110 feet wide). We marveled at the snug fit. Only a swimmer could have shared the lock with us. (Swimming the Panama Canal is considered an extreme sport, albeit a discouraged, dangerous, and demented one.)

After the gates behind us had closed, it took ten minutes to fill the lock with enough water to raise the ship 85 feet to the next level. Six electric-powered “mules,” three on each side, guided our ship through the three locks.

The crossing should have taken eight hours. Ours took twelve. It was pitch dark by the time we left the last lock on the Pacific side. In the morning, we found ourselves at an unscheduled stop in Balboa, Panama. The ship could not make the open sea voyage up the coast to Mexico with only one working propeller. We bemoaned our fate. We’d miss volcano-hiking in Costa Rica and whale-watching off Guatemala.

Then word came down from the bridge (or wherever word originates, maybe in Scandinavia): The cruise line had decided to fly all the passengers and most of the crew to Acapulco while the ship went into dry dock for repairs. Suddenly, things began to look up. A free stay in a hotel on the beach! All the Mexican food we could eat! We’d miss the volcano, but we’d get to see the cliff-divers.

Early the next morning, with everyone packed, they shipped us all off the boat onto a fleet of buses to the airport in Panama City. They did it in stages, of course, performed with Norwegian precision. How else can you move 500 people?

The bus ride taught us not to visit Panama City. Sleek skyscrapers rose right next to tin-and-cardboard shantytowns. Life might not be fair, but this sight threw that fact right in our faces. Even if we wanted to help, we couldn’t. Our windows were sealed to prevent us from interacting with the vendors who stalked the streets, fearless in the heavy traffic. We were captives in a prison of our own wealth . . . which, come to think of it, felt an awful lot like being a passenger of a cruise ship.

Lessons Learned: Our tale had a happy ending, though, and not just because we enjoyed our stay in Acapulco. Our troubles with the broken prop eventually paid off. Big time. The cruise line refunded a full third of our fare.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 3
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Tocumen Panama International Airport
Native Population: 3,300,000 (in the entire country)
Normal Attractions: The canal and its museum, Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter of Panama City), Palacio de las Garzas (Heron’s Palace), fine dining, pickpockets.
Final Point of Interest: Panama La Vieja (Old Panama) is the first city built by Europeans on the Pacific coast of the Americas. The second is Who Cares.

21 November 2009

Quote of the Month

This month’s quote comes in three pieces, although all are related. By the way, all three are by other people, and we’ve used them without permission. That doesn’t mean we’re bad. It also doesn’t mean we’re cheating. Digging up these quotes takes almost as much time as writing our own. We hope you enjoy these, but if not, come back next week for a new installment of Don’t Even Go There.

“The saying ‘Getting there is half the fun’ became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines.”

–Henry J. Tillman


“I did not fully understand the dread term ‘terminal illness’ until I saw Heathrow for myself.”

–Dennis Potter, 1978


“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘as pretty as an airport’.”

–Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988)

14 November 2009

The Cleanest Bars in the World

We like to drink. You could say that our worldly travels are just an attempt to find a new beer, a new wine, or a new martini. That’s not really the whole truth, of course, which you’d know if you’ve read more than two of our stories. Still, the theme (alcohol) keeps popping up from time to time. Here’s another example, while shining too bright a light on a new location. Read on. —MB & JS
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We’ve been to all kinds of bars, from lounges that serve 20-year-old port in crystal stemware to dives that serve flat beer in plastic cups. With experience comes opinion, and in ours, English pubs are the friendliest (maybe because of the familiar-sounding language they speak), but German beer halls offer the best brew in the world. American bars run the gamut, but our preferred haunts favor the exotic tastes of microbrews over the usual blandness of multinational corporate offerings. Otter Creek’s Copper Ale? Yes please.

Assuming cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, however, the most “heavenly” bars belong to the Swiss. Without a doubt, the Swiss have the cleanest bars in the world. This should come as no surprise, since the Swiss are known for their meticulous nature. The trains run on schedule. The buildings look freshly scrubbed. The citizens are fit, fashionable, and refined. Even their soccer teams never play dirty.

This is a candid photo; the streets of Zurich are so clean, you could eat off them!

When we visited Zurich, we felt an initial twinge of envy for the way the city sparkled, but the feeling didn’t last. After a multi-day hitchhike, we looked as well kempt as Albert Einstein on a bad hair day. Even the Swiss punks—sporting precise green mohawks and glinting metal studs—gave us the cold shoulder.

We were visiting a friend, and luckily, he didn’t live far from city center. But a few minutes as the crow flies became a painful half hour as the way rose gradually steeper and steeper until we were literally crawling hand over foot up the last stone steps to his abode. Later, after a power-nap and a shower, we decided to “paint the town red,” a quaint expression that has more to do with changing our own complexion than the town’s. Tom, our local host, led us downhill, using the funiculars to speed our trip. We made it in about five minutes.

Tom thought an American-friendly bar would impress us. It didn’t. We’d come to Europe to escape the smug American psyche. Although the place was as spotless as a shaven Bernese Mountain Dog, too many customers looked like transplanted Yuppies. Overheard conversations revolved around baseball, politics, and worst of all: discount shopping. We left immediately.

The next stop, a dark but tidy nightclub, pounded its patrons into submission with loud, electronic dance music. Tom bought the first round, and we settled into a corner booth. Lithe, young Swiss girls danced all around us, attracting our attention and then dismissing it. One round led to another, and soon we were dancing all around the lithe, young Swiss girls—who deflected our attempts to engage them in a subtle European way: French-kissing their girlfriends.

By the time we dragged ourselves away, dazed and sweaty, we found that balancing on two feet was more a function of momentum than conscious will. With Tom in the lead, we set out for a clean, well-lighted place. One last drink before the long uphill trek to bed. At a promising tavern, Tom pulled open a heavy wooden door to find a Swiss gentleman of imposing proportions. The man took one look at us and—before Tom could open his mouth—shook his head and pointed us away.

We waved Swiss francs at him, to prove we could pay for our drinks. He shook his head again and blocked the doorway with his girth. We’d never been refused entry to a bar before. Never. Not in Turkey, not in Paris, not even in Trenton, New Jersey. So why now, and why in Zurich?

The bouncer’s explanation, in heavily accented English, was short and sweet: “You are too dirty,” he said.

Lessons Learned: Switzerland is a beautiful country surrounded by rugged mountains. Situated right in the middle of Western Europe, the country offers many treats of its own, plus it’s a great jumping-off point for a longer European vacation. You’re bound to have fun there, as long as you keep your nose as clean as the Swiss keep their bars.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Zurich Airport
Native Population: 372,000
Normal Attractions: Lindenhof (a medieval castle), the Bahnhofstrasse shopping district, museums, churches, gardens, and of course, the Alps.
Final Point of Interest: Every spring, the Zurich Swiss hold a parade and then burn an effigy of Winter called a Böögg. What a college town!

07 November 2009

Back to the Present

Here’s another of our frightfully amusing theme park adventures. This one encapsulates its host city so well that you’ll feel like you’ve really been there (even if you haven’t) and immediately need to take a shower (even if you’ve just had one). That’s the kind experience we hope to attain for you, our loyal readers: one that’s so real, so funny, and so insane, you’ll repeat it to your friends as your own. —MB & JS
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For some people, a trip to Universal Studios is a trip to Hell itself. The crowds. The blatant consumerism. The pandering to our lowest common impulses, like sex. For others, and we count ourselves among them, a trip to Universal Studios is close to Heaven. The rides. The thrills. The pandering to our lowest common impulses, like sex.

Universal Studios offers up almost every conceivable entertainment. On one hand, you have to admire the energy and resolve to pack so much fun into one place. The park’s infrastructure is so sophisticated, city governments should hire its engineers to design public transportation. We’d all live in a happier, more efficient place.

On the other hand, despite the efficient design, long long long lines plague the park. People are waiting everywhere . . . for rides, for food, for toilets, for the exit. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find lines, each longer and slower-moving than the last. It’s a nightmare for the ADD-challenged among us. Imagine the horror, the horror, if city governments hired its engineers to design public transportation.

While you can whine about the prices—and they are outrageous—you should have known what you were getting into when you paid your admission. It’s the lines that will stick with you like a bad burrito. Those lines will haunt you deep into the night, assuming you make it that long. For the good rides, the ones you came to experience, the lines can stretch into an hour-long, bone-numbing wait.

But that’s not the really bad news.

As you’re enduring that wait, shifting from one tired foot to the other, trying half-heartedly to keep your kids from starting a major international incident, you might notice a few people somehow bypass the line altogether and make their way stealthily but straight to the entrance. Who are they and how can they get away with this? Where are the park police when you need them?

Welcome to Los Angeles. Those “chosen few” are likely movie industry insiders. They know all the tricks. Don’t ask us how they do it. Life isn’t fair. You’re stuck in line, boiling inside, for another forty-five minutes just to catch a glimpse of the Jurassic Park ride, when a couple of hot blondes and an industry mogul out to impress them cut right to the front.

You somehow persevere to enjoy the ride, but the vision of those blondes etches itself onto your brain. The whole experience irks you. It helps explain why people enjoy the tabloid stories of movie stars in compromising positions: it’s the satisfying feeling of revenge.

But back to the present. While Universal Studios has its drawbacks, any thrill-seeker worth his salty dog has to go, to experience first-hand the rides that have won the park fame and stature. Because despite the wait, despite the long lines, the rides are worth it.

When preparing for your visit, develop a plan of attack. Decide which rides you absolutely must hit, then using a map of the park, devise a strategy for the day. The order you do things can make a huge difference. For example, during one visit, we made the mistake of sweating it out in the Backdraft ride first when the obvious move was to get soaked on the water toboggan ride and then dry off by the fire.

The rides change year to year, so make sure you have a current list. The major exhibits change constantly, too. When you need a rest, take the trolley tour for a relaxing hour. And we didn’t even mention CityWalk, the food-and-entertainment pedestrian-friendly stroll at the park’s entrance/exit. Want a beer? Want to see a show? Want both? CityWalk might be the answer. Just remember, you’re in LA. There’s lots to do out there.

Lessons Learned: If you can’t score those VIP passes and the blondes that come with them, wake up early, pack a lunch, and bring every major credit card you own (you’ll need them). You won’t regret your trip, and it’ll give you a reason to check the tabloids.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 5/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International Airport (aka LAX)
Native Population: 4,100,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: Are you kidding? Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Dodger Stadium, the culture, the food, the population, the Valley, the architecture, the drugs. You could find a worse place to visit. We certainly have.
Final Point of Interest: LA actually has a subway system. It’s not as extensive as New York’s, but whose is? Just don’t get caught on the subway during an earthquake.

01 November 2009

Witch Way

This is the very first time we’ve missed a deadline. We were supposed to post the following story yesterday, on Halloween. That was our intent. Then Halloween happened. The next thing we knew, we were waking up with dry, bleary eyes and puncture wounds in our necks. Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but that’s how it felt. Forgive our tardiness and enjoy this special story. —MB & JS
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“Holiday travel” usually makes us think of Thanksgiving or Christmas, when folks traditionally journey home for the holidays, but popular travel times also include the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. But what about the other holidays? Where would you go for, say, Presidents Day? Mount Rushmore? Come on, South Dakota is not that alluring in February.

One holiday, however, begs for a road trip: Halloween. We recently returned to Massachusetts (the scene of our adolescence) to participate in the Haunted Happenings in the seaport city of Salem. Spending Halloween in the Witch City, we discovered, is like celebrating Christmas at the North Pole: full of all the pomp and pageantry money can buy.

Salem spends the whole month of October in party mode. That means special events, live shows, music, mayhem, and, of course, more useless stuff on sale than during a Hannah Montana concert. You have to admit that’s pretty scary.

If you know US history, you’ll recognize Salem for its famous (or infamous) 17th century witch trials. But a lot’s happened in the last 350 years. Witch Way is the name of a street now. Laurie Cabot (the city’s “official witch”) ran unsuccessfully for mayor a few years back. Today, Salem is equally renowned for the wayward witches, warlocks, and goth vampires who roam the streets every day of the year. Halloween just brings them out of the knotty pine.

Why stay home handing out candy to ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, when you can run into the real things in Salem? Why dress up in a rented costume to attend a friend’s drinking party when you can go to Salem’s Vampire Ball to hang out with some tasty vamps and vampires for a little active “necking.” Why go to a party with people dressed as witches when you can attend a gala with people who actually are witches? For a price, they’ll read your palm and tell you your future (however short it might be). For a few dollars more, they’ll teach you how to brew potions, make a broom, or use amulets, charms, and tokens for your own devious ends.

Salem in October is overrun with “eerie.” We’re talking about really strange stuff here, not your run-of-the-mill stranger in strange clothes. We were solicited on a city street—not for sex, but for our bodies. They needed two more for their séance. A local turned her innocent courtyard into a torture chamber, complete with a guillotine and gushing blood. We happened upon it during an otherwise normal day. In Salem, during the month of October, almost anything is possible.

The Festival of the Dead includes the Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball, a Dinner with the Dead, the Vampires’ Masquerade Ball, the Annual Psychic Fare and Witchcraft Expo, as well as seminars, art exhibitions, and ghost-hunting expeditions. There’s also the Bizarre Bazaar, the Official Salem Séance, parades, costume balls, tours, museums, and more. Salem has sold its soul to the devil of commerce. You can find almost anything for sale—from T-shirts to torture devices, from real antiques to fake eyeballs.

Then again, in Salem, the art of the scam knows no bounds. Many “museums” feature unmoving wax figures given dramatic, flickering light while a guide reads from note cards. Town center now has a monument to that most evil of all witches: Elizabeth Montgomery. The Halloween Parade to kick off the season featured school bands, toilet-seat-clapping members of a local plumbing service, and other equally scary fare.

We tried to behave. Honest. We wanted to see all the city had to offer without resorting to that type of photograph of us standing in front of an historic landmark, as if to say: “We were here!” How cheesy is that?

How cheesy is this?

Ultimately, we broke down and bought stuff. Lots of stuff. Stuff we threw away when we returned home to sanity. Five-dollar T-shirts! Two-dollar refrigerator magnets! Witch costumes! Spell books! Crystals! Knives! Goblets! Fake blood mix! My God, it was an ugly display of shopping frenzy. But we did it for you, so you won’t have to. You’ll thank us someday. In the meantime, want to buy a slightly soiled ritual blade?

Next year, forget about the neighborhood kids and treat yourself. Ditch your friends (figuratively, of course) and travel to Salem, Massachusetts. Bring a funky costume and a full pocketbook. Get ready for fun, but watch your back, for every mummy has a method and every witch has a way.

Lessons Learned: Since October coincides with the foliage season in New England, make it a longer vacation and take a day trip up to the Kangamangus Highway in New Hampshire to view the vibrant color of the White Mountains. If you feel the need to escape the witchcraft weirdness, take the short drive to the quaint harbor town of Marblehead right next door.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Logan International Airport (in Boston)
Native Population: 41,000
Normal Attractions: Shopping, architecture, history, Salem Willows Park, Winter Island, Pioneer Village (a working village simulating Salem’s early years), drinking heavily at Salem State College.
Final Point of Interest: Nathanial Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables is still a popular draw and one of Salem’s best tours.
Elizabeth Montgomery: The Personification of Evil?

23 October 2009

Quote of the Month

The way you travel says a lot about you. For example, we are former hitchhikers who prefer trains to planes, and our stories reflect this inclination. All this experience has led to some insights and revelations over the years. Let us share one with you now:

“When in doubt, buy the second-class ticket. First class will be too expensive and third class too uncomfortable. That doesn’t make us moderates, by the way.”

Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

18 October 2009

One Thumb Out and Two Thumbs Down

Here is another story from our many, many hitchhiking adventures. This true story proves once again that even knowing the lay of the land can’t always protect you from the unimaginable. Sometimes, you’re just on your own. That’s the thrill and the beauty of traveling: you never know how the journey will end until you reach your destination. —MB & JS
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Germany has an excellent train system—its cabins are neat, its passengers are polite, and its trained crew are ruthlessly efficient. But for adventure and economy, you might consider hitchhiking. Unlike hitching in the US, thumbing a ride in Europe is still a fairly safe and viable travel alternative . . . most of the time.

To get anywhere in Germany by car, you have to take the Autobahn, the nation’s souped-up interstate highway. Traveling on the Autobahn means never having to say “Geschwindigkeitsgrenze,” which is a lot of syllables that mean “speed limit.” Drivers on the Autobahn average 100 miles an hour, regardless of the weather. Accidents, when they happen, involve everybody. There’s no such thing as a fender-bender in triple-digit driving.

Did you see that car just disappear into the distance? That was us once.

For obvious reasons, pedestrians aren’t allowed on the road itself, which limits hitchhikers to entrance ramps, rest stops, and the prize of them all: Tankstellen (gas stations). This law, however, does not limit hitchhikers’ success stories.

Experienced hitchhikers—like us, the ones who live to retell the tale—have fond memories of their time on the road, but if you are among the faint of heart, you might want to dig deeper for train fare. Hitchhiking is not without its inherent risks, which goes double for hitchhiking on the Autobahn (picture trying to score a ride from the pit stop during a NASCAR race). While you can get lucky and reach your destination in record time, you might also end up on the ride of your life. All you know about your host is that he or she had the decency to pull over and open the door.

We’ve been lucky. Hitchhiking has taken us to brave new worlds. We’ve ridden the waves of centripetal force in the back of an empty dump truck skidding around sandy corners on a Turkish mountain byway. We’ve sweated bullets while bumping along in a gas tanker marked EXPLOSIVE. We’ve crawled along a road in an old pick-up going slower than we could have walked. We’ve been left at the side of the road in the middle of the night with nowhere to sleep but among the trees. We’ve even been picked up by the driver of a stolen car speeding toward the border.

We’ve been honked at, faked out, and passed up by caravans of Brits when our sign clearly read “London.” We’ve been given a lift by the Dutch Highway Patrol when stuck at a crossroads and nearly arrested in Austria for soliciting a similar service. We’ve been put up for the night, invited to parties, introduced to artists, taken to breakfast, and seduced by married women. Some of our greatest travel memories started with a long walk and ended with a ride to remember.

Which brings us back to Germany’s Autobahn. It was the setting for our scariest ride ever—a few hours that forced us to review our past, repent our ways, and swear off hitchhiking for weeks.

It was late at night. That was one problem. We’d been drinking. That was another. But we somehow scored a ride going all the way to our destination. Silly grins. High-fives. We got in the car. The next thing we knew, we had entered the stratosphere. We had unknowingly booked passage for a pre-dawn flight in an Audi rocket cruising at 150 miles an hour through a fog thicker than Egyptian cotton.

Our fingernails dug into the upholstered leather seats. Our hearts crawled up into our throats for protection. Our breath came in quick spurts, as if our lungs sought to remind us we were still mortal. The driver straddled the center line to keep safely away from the Soft Shoulder of Death. We’ve never been so glad not to see another car. At a Tankstelle stop to refuel, we actually fought for the right to sit in the back seat.

We made it home in record time, but with damaged nerves and soiled underwear. It was a ride we’ve never been able to forget. Not even with alcohol.

Little Known Fact: Germans find it offensive if you join your index finger and thumb together in the “OK” sign. Don’t do it!

Lessons Learned: When hitchhiking on the Autobahn, you get to ride in some of the highest-performing automobiles in the world as they try to exceed the speed of sound. Hitchhiking isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve got more time than money, there’s no better feeling than seeing a car slow down and pull over, especially if the wind is blowing and the pavement has spent the last two hours sending shivers through the soles of your feet. You’re living on the edge, balanced precariously between hope and despair, safety and danger, life and death, a rock and a fast lane. You’ll probably be fine, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Most traffic to Germany still goes through Frankfort Airport
Native Population: 82,500,000 (Germany), not that you’ll meet them all on the Autobahn
Normal Attractions: German history, culture, art, museums, and of course, the automobiles.
Final Point of Interest: Twenty years of debate and study haven’t proven the Autobahn any more dangerous than other roads.

07 October 2009

The Cannibal’s Feast

This story comes from a friend of ours who travels (as you’ll soon see) to more exotic places than we normally go. That’s why we like her so much. That, and because she shares her stories with us freely. Here’s an adventure we have never even dreamed about, and yet it’s one our friend Heather undertook without a second thought. Maybe she’s having second thoughts now. —MB & JS
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In the archipelago country of Vanuatu, just below the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, an indigenous tribe inhabits the northern hills on the Island of Malakula. The tribe is known as the “Big Nambas,” which translates to—as strange as it might seem—the “Big Numbers.” But that’s hardly the strangest part. The tribe’s name, you see, is in reference to the size of the men’s penis sheathes.

The Big Nambas are famous (or infamous) as former cannibals who, back in the 1980s, still lived as they did thousands of years ago, far from civilization. While they’ve since been exposed to Western culture and religion, they held on to their ancient beliefs, although they had apparently ceased practicing cannibalism. At least that’s what we heard. The world’s last cannibals? We decided we had to find the Big Nambas.

Doing so proved to be a challenge. After we landed on Malakula, we had to navigate through the island’s other natives—the Small Nambas, who apparently suffer from penis sheath envy. Half of them spoke “pidgin English” and the other half spoke “Français de pigeon.” We eventually discovered that the Big Nambas’ village was a solid nine-hour hike up into the mountains.

Two hours into the journey, we met a Westernized (some would say corrupted) islander with a pickup truck who agreed to drive us the rest of the way, for a price. A short negotiation followed, in which we persuaded him, for a slightly larger fee, to rendezvous with us for the return trip as well.

When we arrived at the village, Virhembat the Chief greeted us with his seven wives and 23 children. He showed us each wife’s hut in turn, from the most ornate (which belonged to his first and most honored wife) to the most humble (which belonged to his youngest wife). It was a time-consuming custom we feared might end in a more intimate one.

That night they honored us with a feast. Wild boar, they told us, but it could have been anything . . . or anyone, since their word for all meat was “boar.” We decided not to risk offense. Never anger a cannibal, even a former one. With exaggerated delight, we ate. It tasted suspiciously like chicken.

Virhembat turned out to be quite charming in his own way. Since he only spoke his own language, we had to communicate with gestures and the occasional word. Somehow it worked. He “told” us (miming an airplane) that his eldest son was in France. We learned later that France to him meant Tahiti.

That’s how the world works; your concept of distance all depends on your perspective. While driving across Texas, for instance, doesn’t it seem that you’ll never again see the ocean? Or Chinese food?

When it came time to leave the Big Nambas, we learned some valuable lessons, like how kind and generous these “primitives” were, how much we really liked their simple ways, and how much we wished we hadn’t paid the full amount for the return trip in advance, because the driver never appeared at the rendezvous point. Maybe we had him for dinner.

At least the nine-hour walk back was all downhill.

Little Known Fact: On another island in the same archipelago live the Cargo Cults. During World War II, the Red Cross dropped supplies on the island, and the natives thought it was manna from heaven. They even adopted the US military medic symbol. Ironically, they’ve come to despise Americans, who they believe don’t share their material goods readily enough.

Lessons Learned: Adventure—whether cultural, culinary, or both—always involves some risk. When you’re out in the Great Unknown, trust your instincts and remember what drove you there in the first place (not the pickup truck, but the desire for new and exciting experiences).
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Norsup, Lamap, and Southwest Bay Airports, all on the Island of Malakula
Native Population: 30,000
Normal Attractions: Malakula has a rich cultural diversity (European and indigenous), but the real reason to visit is that it’s a remote tropical island, far from the maddening crowds.
Final Point of Interest: Pigs, particularly those with rounded tusks, are considered a symbol of wealth throughout Vanuatu.

25 September 2009

Bored on the Bayou

We tend to go where few have gone before us. Occasionally, this reveals rare treasures worth any amount of discomfort it took to get there. More often, however, we just find more discomfort after all the discomfort it took to get there. Such was the case in this story. Despite the discomfort, the trip left a lasting memory, one we can now share for your benefit. Read and learn, young Opie Wan-derer. —MB & JS
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New Orleans, Louisiana, is (or was, before the flood) an awe-inspiring city, full of odd characters—past and present. Few locations can rival this city’s history, music, food, or festivities. The Garden District and above-ground cemeteries draw millions of tourists each year, and the legendary French Quarter never fails to live up to its reputation, unless you’ve sworn off alcohol . . . or fun.

But if you have a broader sense of adventure, then follow our example and tread off the beaten path into the endless bayous—extensive marsh-like regions of endless swamp, drooping trees, and unparalleled wildlife. Bayous embody majesty and mystery, danger and grace. All before lunch.

The locals are mostly friendly, hospitable, and proud of their land. Many enterprising individuals offer guided tours through the deciduous rainforests that surround the bayou, but be forewarned: these tours inevitably start early in the morning. They like to get a jump on the snakes and alligators that are sleeping off a long night prowling for dinner.

Our ride began at a chilly 7:00 AM and ended at a dry, sweltering noon. The riverboats designed for the bayou’s shallow waters don’t use standard propellers. They simply wouldn’t work in the thick, tangled plant life that flourishes just below the surface. Instead, the boats employ above-board fans driven by gas engines so loud you can’t even talk to yourself.

We bumped along for two deafening hours and then sat for a long silent hour, where we found ourselves miles from a Dixie Voodoo Lager, hungry for a glimpse of life-threatening jaws or aquatic aliens, the big fan resembling a bobbing behind us like a grave marker. Like the others on this tour, we expected to see wildlife—hanging precariously from trees, popping snouts out of the water, posing for pictures while poised to grab a nearby snack. Or a hand.

We wouldn’t go so far as to say we were cheated, but we saw precisely one snake, and it wasn’t even very big. It wiggled out of a tree and fell with a plop into the water, where it shimmered in the light for another few seconds before disappearing altogether. We didn’t even have time to take a picture. That was it. No alligators, no waterfowl, not even any fish.

They’re out there, somewhere. Probably hanging out with Bigfoot.

Of course, the hour we spent waiting wasn’t entirely without drama. After a half hour, the driver tried and failed to restart the engine. Several times. Though the noise did nothing to help our chances of spotting wildlife, we prayed for him to succeed. As much as we wanted to see an alligator, we didn’t want it to be the last thing we ever saw. When the engine roared to life, destroying the spooky silence that’s indigenous to the bayou, we actually cheered.

Wildlife doesn’t linger, and there are no guarantees, either in life or in the bayou. The toothless driver—who spoke Cajun, a complex mixture of French and English—said he couldn’t remember the last time his tour didn’t see a single reptile. Our first response, filtered through our years traveling the world, was: “Get a quieter boat, dude!” But we held our tongue until the more rational second response kicked in: “You probably say that to every tour!”

If you want our advice, research your guide before you go. Find one whose dock is near the wildlife estuaries. Ask for the silent treatment—a boat with a quiet engine. Make sure they not only care about their customers, they care about the wildlife, too.

Little Known Fact: If they ask you whether or not you suck the heads, don’t be offended. They’re referring to crawfish, and eating them separates the locals from the tourists.

Lessons Learned: Plan for rain whatever the season. Bring a camera, plenty of mosquito repellent, and a good book, just in case your trip ended like ours. While the bayou can offer an adventure, its charms are often well hidden. Like buried treasure, the reward (a great photo or a vivid spectacle) goes to those willing to dig a little, sometimes into their own limits of endurance.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 4
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Louis Armstrong International Airport
Native Population: 312,000, half of what it was in 1960
Normal Attractions: Are you kidding? The French Quarter, Mardi Gras, rooting for the ’Aints at the Superdome, the Jazz & Heritage Festival, the music, food, and alcohol, plus the abundance of tourists.
Final Point of Interest: In one nationwide poll, the city was voted the 25th of 25 US cities for safety and cleanliness. Let’s face it: this is a family vacation destination like Siberia is an exotic seaside beach.

18 September 2009

Quote of the Month

Here’s some real travel wisdom. It comes from having traveled far beyond our country’s borders. There are things you can learn only by going someplace strange, awkward, foreign. Like Las Vegas. Then wisdom hits you upside the head like a whore’s purse loaded with nickels. Anyway, here is one of the tidbits we learned:

“Europe is just like the States. Except they speak English with a funny accent. And they have some really old churches. And they are way into soccer. And, oh yeah, they all have health care coverage.”

Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

05 September 2009

The Other Half

We’ve often dropped hints about The Other Half, assuming you knew what we meant. Just to be safe, we thought we’d finally share a story about them. You may be surprised. When we refer to the other half, always make sure you know which half we’re talking about. Confused? Don’t worry, this story will set everything straight. Enjoy. —MB & JS
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Maine, in the northeastern corner of the US, keeps a low profile. It’s not because it doesn’t have a lot to offer; it does, in fact. Remember, this is a state whose nickname is “Vacationland.” But advertising isn’t in the budget. It’s a big state with Rhode Island-sized areas populated only by the plentiful moose, the occasional family, and other wild animals. Think Montana, except with a coastline.

Maine is like two states in one: the coastline supports one type of “Mainiac:” urbane, professional, sophisticated . . . or at least literate. The inland regions, on the other hand, provide shelter for an entirely different breed: hardy, shy, independent . . . in other words, dirt poor. And in Central Maine is where we find our next destination.

While Kennebunkport in the southern tip of the state can call to mind yacht clubs, lawn croquet, and lobster bakes, most of us can’t afford the dock fees. Instead of stopping in Kennebunkport, we head to Old Orchard Beach and fight the concert-sized crowds and the model airplane-sized deer flies. Or we trek further up to Portland for the live music and big city traffic. Or we check out Bath or Boothbay Harbor for the waterfront views and the Down East accents. Sometimes, we venture all the way up to Camden and Belfast to marvel at the small cottage life sprinkled amidst the antique furniture sales. Every once in a while, we even make it to Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor (pronounced “Bah Hahbah,” like you’re Ebenezer Scrooge) for some real R&R.

But every one of these places is located on or near the coastline. That just won’t do for two adventure-loving dolts like yours truly. We had to venture into the Great Unknown. For every town like bucolic Camden, there are ten like toxic Rumford, a place that owes its existence—and its horrid smell—to a paper mill. For every scenic Belfast, there are ten like dull Gray, a place that lives up to its name. Then there’s Waterville.

Located in Central Maine 25 miles north of Augusta, the state capital, Waterville is home to two private colleges: Colby College and Thomas College. One is a prestigious liberal arts institution often confused with a former all-girls school (named Colby-Sawyer), and the other is a small business college often confused for a prestigious liberal arts institution. Between them, they account for the main reason Waterville exists today. That, and to make the residents of Skowhegan feel good about themselves.

Known as “H2O-ville” by disgruntled chemistry majors, Waterville caters to the colleges, and rightly so. The Railroad Square Cinema and its art film reruns would never have made it past its first year without the college crowd. The Record Connection, a used music store, owes its life to college poseurs. You Know Whose Pub exists to serve college students when they tire of cafeteria food, which usually starts sometime in October.

But what about the other residents of Waterville?

Watervillains (our term, not theirs) are poor, sturdy folk who dress themselves in the latest fashions from Zayre’s—a cheap local knockoff of a discount Sears—which is now sadly closed. Goodwill’s second-hand hand-me-downs must have forced them out of business.

The locals eat simple foods: fish they can catch, animals they can identify, and plants they can grow in the short season from May to August. They lead simple lives of honest toil with fierce hardiness. They rarely complain; in fact, they rarely speak at all. If you try to start a conversation, you won’t get much past: “You cahn’t get thay-ah from hee-ah.”

Many Watervillains live in a house someone in their family built back in the 1920s. Nothing in the years since has been thrown out past the yard’s border. Anything that can be burned has been. Everything they still own serves two purposes, such as the family pet/hunting dog, snow shovel/coat hanger, and tool shed/outhouse.

If you come across this sign, you’re either completely lost or waiting for Spring Break to end. In either case, we pity you.

On one wrong-turn visit to town, we entered what we thought was an ordinary greasy spoon for lunch. When we ordered a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, the waitress, a plump sweetheart with a moustache, shouted at the kitchen window, “Lebanese pizza!” It turns out that Waterville has a significant population of Lebanese (the Maronite Christian variety, for those of you from Homeland Security).

So if you really want to get away from it all—the affluent jungle, the tasteful stores, the cell phone connections—take a trip to Waterville, Maine, to see how the other half lives. Your own home will never look so good.

Lessons Learned: Waterville is a city, especially compared to the surrounding towns, but it is as rural-feeling a city as any town you’ll find in Iowa. There are good reasons to head to Maine (skiing in the winter, boating in the summer), but you really have to want to go to Waterville to get there. Or anywhere near there.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 3
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Portland International Jetport (Portland, Maine)
Native Population: 15,600
Normal Attractions: Colby or Thomas College events, like homecoming, graduation, or $1 beer night.
Final Point of Interest: Waterville was originally a settlement of the Canibas tribe. Little wonder a liberal arts college sprang up there. “Dude!”

28 August 2009

Nothing Good Can Come of This

We thought we’d pause a moment and talk about the Number One location of Our Top Ten Places to Avoid (if you’ve never seen it, look in the right-hand column). Why did we list the travel section of a magazine rack as the worst place to visit? It might seem odd, since it’s so unlike all the other destinations we write about. Let us explain. —MB & JS
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Anyone who travels looks for advice, tips, and warnings. We like to think it’s the reason you’ve ended up here at our blog page, and we like to think that we satisfy that need. Granted, sometimes we recommend that you trudge through the Gates of Hell before trying a location we found. But we like to think this is a useful service in an industry rife with false advertising.

Which brings us to other sources of travel information. We recognize we haven’t visited every place you might want to go (or avoid, as is the often the case). So we hope you search for other useful sites and sources to supplement the invaluable advice you can find here.

No matter where you find your travel advice, do yourself a favor: avoid the travel section of your favorite bookstore’s magazine rack. We’re not just issuing this warning because these magazines won’t publish our stories. Our stories aren’t fit for mass consumption. We know that. They just don’t fit in those advertisement-driven glossies. We’re content to offer our travel advice for free on the alternative distribution medium that is the Internet.

Travel magazines, on the other hand, exist to sell advertising. They fill the occasional page with pretty prose with the hope that you’ll be suckered into coughing up your hard-earned dough. Don’t fall for it.

Try this exercise at a bookstore: holding your nose, pick a travel magazine off the rack. Holding it at arm’s length, open the front cover to the first page. If you were to do this with a Bill Bryson opus, you’d find a neat page with the title and hopefully an autograph. With the travel magazine, however, your senses are assaulted with a two-page spread trying to entice you to buy something you likely don’t even need. Toss the offending magazine back at the rack and wash your hands thoroughly.

Here’s an example. On the front page of a recent popular travel magazine whose name we will not utter except to say its initials are CNT (where the “T” stands for “Traveler”), we read the following headline at the top of the front cover: “Summer 2009: Greatest Deals Ever.” Who could resist a teaser like that? We picked up the magazine. Holding it at arm’s length, we scanned the rest of the cover and discovered we were tricked.

Further down the cover were these words, in very large type: “Hot List,” followed by “50 Restaurants, 50 Spas, 35 Nightclubs,” and the “World’s Top New 140 Hotels*.” Although we rarely travel to a destination just to frequent a restaurant, spa, or nightclub, we recognize them as perks of traveling. But wait! What was that asterisk? And there, in the fine print, we read incredulously: “including 43 under $250.”

That was the moment we tossed the magazine back at the magazine rack. This, we realized, was not a magazine that could yield any information we could use in the real world—the world most of us inhabit. This magazine wants to entice us with 43 hotels (of the 140 hotels they’ve written about and let advertisers push) that offer rooms for under $250 a night?

We rented a hotel room for $250 a night once, in downtown Seattle. Yes, the location was perfect. Yes, the pillows felt like clouds under our heads. Yes, the bathroom (especially the tub) was absolutely incredible. No, we would never stay there again. Unlike Republican congressmen, we don’t hang out in hotel bathrooms. They exist for one purpose. OK, two. But we don’t spend any more time there than we have to. We hadn’t traveled 2,000 miles to take a bath.

Travel magazines like this one cater to people who either have $500 to throw into a hotel toilet or wish they did. In either case, you’re not getting any information that will help you the next time you hit the road, regardless where you go. What you need are true bargains, like the $35 a night shit hole with clean sheets and freshly laundered towels, or the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet for $6, or the university bulletin board advertising those who need a ride to the coast and are willing to split expenses. You won’t find these tips in a travel glossy.

So keep returning here to seek the travel wisdom of your friends Mark and Jason. We’re only too happy to share true lessons from our hard-scrabble life as amateur travel writers. You benefit. We benefit. Everyone wins. Except the glossies.

Lessons Learned: We’ve saved hundreds of dollars not buying the glossy advertising that passes for travel advice. You can too. A trip to a neighborhood bar in a strange place can often provide better sightseeing tips than a Froemmer’s, and you can wet your whistle at the same time. Our traveling motto is: “Money can’t buy you happiness.” It’ll get you a comfortable bed, a sumptuous meal, and even a gorgeous traveling companion, but it will do nothing to point you in the right direction. On the other hand, we will.

We offer no location ratings this week, since we really didn’t write about a specific destination. Thanks for reading our rant, though, and come back often, even if it’s just to read our backlist. Next month, we’ll be back to our usual selves to skewer a brand new travel destination. Until then, keep your wallet close to your chest, your dirty underwear in a plastic bag, and the travel magazines wherever you find them.

20 August 2009

Quote of the Month

We sometimes succumb to souvenir shopping. It’s shameful, we know. The worst souvenirs are the T-shirts that shout the name of some hell hole we visited for a half hour while waiting for bail money (although you have to admit not many others wear their Kansas State . . . Prison T as proudly as we do). Anyway, we recently found the perfect souvenir. Almost.

“We just bought T-shirts that say Not a Tourist. We can wear them almost anywhere and get away with it. Except at Disney World; everyone there will know we’re lying.”

Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

12 August 2009

A Big Wheel

Here’s another one of our stories about foreign food . . . meaning it’s food that’s foreign to us. In past posts, we’ve written about jalapeños, frogs’ legs, and German Kaldaunen, among other tasty treats. This month’s entry isn’t as sour as all that, but we still hope you like it. —MB & JS
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Everything we know about wine we learned from a trip to Napa Valley, California. The experience taught us how to check a wine’s color and density while stroking your chin; how to judge its legs as if you were a guest at a beauty pageant; and how to swirl the wine from cheek to cheek like it was mouthwash. Tasting fine wines, we discovered, is like listening to French poetry: too much and you have to spit up.

In Napa, we toured over a dozen vineyards—learning about growing seasons, harvesting techniques, fermentation processes, and French oak casks—but the highlight of the trip was an impromptu visit to the Far Niente estate. They normally open their tours only to people who are “in the industry,” such as restaurateurs, sommelier, and other drunken wine snobs. We happened to catch them on a slow day.

We arrived early and parked by the main house, a painstakingly restored 19th-century stone mansion. With time to spare, we toured the landscaped grounds and the garage full of antique cars. Ah, the life of the idle rich.

We fit right in, dressed in shorts and tank tops like we didn’t care what anyone thought of us. We didn’t; we had hurried there directly from the mud baths in nearby Callistoga. Despite our untidy appearance and unkempt hair, they still treated us like royalty. Maybe they thought we were wine critics instead of travel writers. Ah, the advantages of anonymity.

Would you serve an expensive wine to this man?

Then the tour began. They showed us the vineyards, the fermenting room, and our favorite: the storage caves cut beneath the house. Surrounded by all those casks, you might think we’d have wanted to get locked in, but you shouldn’t drink wine before its time. That’s Lesson Number One. (Lesson Number Two is always know where the bathroom is.)

At the end of the tour came the obligatory wine tasting. Believe it or not, some people participate in vineyard tours just for the free wine waiting at the end. Those barbarians! After a battle of righteous indignation, we set aside our armor and sidled up to the table for Far Niente’s free offerings.

Our hosts brought out a thin-stemmed glass goblet for each of us, then a chilled bottle of chardonnay. Although we rarely drank white wine, we became instant converts. With white wine, we learned, you can’t skimp. Those five-dollar bottles of twist-off happiness we used to buy would no longer satisfy us.

At every wine tasting, you’ll find a “spit bucket.” The idea is that you swirl the wine around in your mouth and then spit it out (as if you’re reciting French poetry, some say). With wine this tasty, however, we couldn’t help but swallow. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Following the chardonnay, two remarkable things occurred. First, they distributed new glassware—apparently each wine deserved its own specially shaped goblet. Then they brought out an 18-inch-diameter wheel of hard Parmesan cheese with the next bottle of wine. We’d heard of nibbling cheese to cleanse the palate between servings, but this was no cheap grocery store giveaway; it was a Wallace and Gromit wet dream.

We watched the others nonchalantly chip off a chunk, as if they had a similar Parmesan spare tire sitting on their table at home, maybe propped up between the silver candlesticks. Not us. When it reached our side of the table, we felt a mischievous urge to stuff it under a shirt and race for the door. We didn’t. We wanted to stop the proceedings to have our picture taken with it. (“This is us in Napa with our new best friend, the Big Wheel of Cheese.”) We didn’t do that either. Instead, we settled for simply hefting it a few times—not an easy feat—and chipping off a half-pound wedge. It barely made a dent.

The rest of Far Niente’s wines were delectable, and we can, with a clear conscience, recommend any of them to those of you who can afford them. Yes, we discovered these wines aren’t cheap, even at the vineyard. Take it from us, though: once you’ve had the best, you’ll realize how well the other half live. But that story will have to wait for another day.

Treat yourself to a bottle of Far Niente wine so the owner won’t be evicted.

Lessons Learned: While we have fond memories of our stay in Napa Valley, it’s the cheese that captured our imagination. We’ve never seen anything like it. While Far Niente makes an excellent product, it was that big wheel of cheese that made it rise to the top, above all the other wannabe wineries. Ask for one on your next vineyard tour.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 5

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport or Oakland International Airport (Napa Valley Airport serves only private flights)
Native Population: 125,000
Normal Attractions: Winery tours and tastings, the Wine Train, Calistoga mud baths, hot air balloon rides, scenic vistas, and fine dining.
Final Point of Interest: Napa Valley’s Hakusan Sake Gardens offers hot and cold sake tasting for those who are tired of the same old red or white.

03 August 2009

Lone Star

Sometimes, a journey away from home shocks us with unexpected delights and disrupted stereotypes. These trips have a profound effect on us. It’s at times like this when we seriously question our calling of skewering vacation destinations. After all, isn’t travel by definition a very personal experience? Luckily for us, there’s always places like Everett, Massachusetts—known to locals and drunks alike as “The Gateway to Chelsea.” Skewer away. —MB & JS
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We were ready for the worst. We’d seen many of the horror movies set here. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Easy Rider. Tin Cup. There are probably more, but we couldn’t drag ourselves to watch them.

We’d even heard the stories. One tall tale describes, in graphic detail, how redneck Texans will catch you, hold you down, and shave your head . . . with the rusted straight razor that Jim Bowie allegedly used for gutting buffalo.

Whether you’re a biker with long hair and a beard or a hippy chick from California, you too might have heard all the stories and innuendo. It’s enough to make you think twice before venturing anywhere near the Great State of Texas. Self-preservation is a natural instinct. Why risk your neck just to push the envelope?

After all, that’s why we’re here.

We can tell you that while the rumors about Texas yokels are pervasive, they’re largely false. They are what we call stereotypes, and while there may be bigots everywhere, we’d like to think they exist at the fringe of society, a tiny minority living in tents and voting Republican. Most Texans, as it turns out, are as friendly and curious as a Quaker who’s accidentally swallowed an overdose of Viagra.

In an unscientific poll we conducted during several of our trips through the state—which we usually undertook in a cruise-controlled marathon of coffee and piss breaks while trying to get to the next state as fast as possible—we found Texans to be among the friendliest people we’ve ever met. Much friendlier, as it turns out, than the drivers we encountered in Boston (for proof, see The Roads to Ruin, January 2009).

Nowhere was the Texan attitude more apparent than in Amarillo. While traveling west once some years ago, we stopped in the city for lunch. We found this small diner that exuded charm and the down-home smell of BBQ. The service was impeccable for such an inexpensive place, and afterward, we needed to walk off the meal. Along the way, we ducked into a local watering hole.

The woman in charge was just cleaning up the debris from the night before. Apparently, the nights in Amarillo last pretty long. The place was open, though, and she invited us in. The pool tables and neon beer signs looked commonplace, but the sawdust on the floor and the overturned chairs spoke volumes about the bar’s normal clientele.

As we sauntered up to the bar, we figured, “Well, we’re in Texas; we should try the state beer.” So we ordered a Lone Star. That was a mistake.

After the proprietor stopped laughing, she said, in her drawl, “Yer not from around here, are ya? What you want is a Kers Laht. That there’s a good beer.” It took us a moment to figure out she meant Coors Light, not a brand we would normally order (“normally” meaning “any other day of any other week”). Given the circumstances, though, how could we refuse?

She served us ice-cold bottles, and while we drank, she described the night before in colorful detail, mentioning regulars by first names like Bubba, Hank, and “Bobby Joe, who puked in the alley.” She offered to show us the stain, but we demurred. Texan generosity obviously knows no limits, but we had ours.

All too soon, we were on our way again, with a broad smile and a lasting memory. We’ve never yet had a bad experience in Texas, and we’ve been back, oh, several times. If it weren’t for the arid climate—the kind that makes your eyes permanently squint like Clint Eastwood’s—we might still be there. Luckily, virtually all of the state’s highways are straight, and they lead to other, more scenic places. Like Oklahoma. Lucky us.

Lessons Learned: If you ever get the chance, take a trip to Texas and find out for yourself. Visit the Alamo in San Antonio. Pay tribute to the Stevie Ray Vaughn memorial in Austin. Stop in for the Dallas nightlife. Spend a winter holiday in Houston. It’s a big state with lots to offer. They know how to make you feel at home, and they won’t stop until you burp with satisfaction.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Amarillo International Airport
Native Population: 175,000
Normal Attractions: Cadillac Ranch and the Palo Duro Canyon State Park (both nearby), and lest we forget: Wonderland Amusement Park (maybe this is why the locals are so friendly: they’re all looking for a ride to somewhere else).
Final Point of Interest: The Big Texan Steak House offers a free 72-ounce steak if you can eat one (and the meal that comes with it) in under an hour. Good luck.

26 July 2009

Paris of the North?

We don’t have many stories about Canada. That’s unfortunate, because it just seems like the kind of place that’s crying out to be made fun of. We’ve heard that Victoria, British Columbia, is so lush a place that everything turns green, including any exposed metal. We’ve heard Banff is the place to go to satisfy your craving for Chinese food. Then there’s the subject of this week’s post. Hope you’re as disappointed as we were. —MB & JS
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O Canada. It’s just like the Unites States, except with socialized medicine.

And then there’s Quebec. Unlike the rest of Canada, the people of Quebec speak French, not English. All the lakes, rivers, and towns have French names. You’re more likely to meet a Pierre or Claude than a Jason or Mark. We hear they love Jerry Lewis movies, too. Quebec, you could say, is a lot like France. Except much colder.

Montreal, the second largest Canadian city (which is like saying Cedar Rapids is the second-largest city in Iowa), isn’t the capital of Quebec the province, but it possesses a mystique that other Canadian cities lack. Some consider Montreal the Canadian Paris, a sort of “Paris Lite.” It has all the glamour of the original City of Light, but half the pretension.

Like Paris, Montreal has earned a reputation of a “sin city” due to its unparalleled nightlife, but where Paris boasts famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, Montreal boasts an underground city shopping mall. It’s a very pleasant mall, but the Eiffel Tower it ain’t. Then again, putting a mall underground is an ingenious way to combat the frigid winters. It all comes back to the weather.

We had high expectations when we visited this “Paris of the North.” From a distance, the city appeared large and impersonal, its skyscrapers huddled together as if trying to ward off the cold. As we approached, however, the skyscrapers parted and we found our way to Old Montreal, where the narrow streets by the original port have produced a pedestrian-friendly area of markets and galleries. English was common, spoken with that alluring accent. The natives all seemed friendly. Not like Paris at all.

We expected to find nude models and playwrights waiting for Godot. Or for us. We expected to see mimes on every other corner . . . getting beaten up by celebrating hockey fans. Montreal is home to the arts to be sure, but it’s also home to the Canadiens (aka les Habitants), one of the proudest and winningest franchises in any professional sport (well, except for the Evil Empire that is the New York Yankees).

We were to be disappointed. The mimes were nowhere to be seen, and the hockey fans pretty much kept to themselves. Canadians are polite people, not usually given to beating each other up, although we’re still sure they’d make an exception for mimes.

The Rue Saint Catherine (“rue” means “avenue” for you English-speaking rubes) runs through the center of downtown. Its restaurants are among the best in the world, say some. Its women are among the most beautiful. But it seemed like any other big city, where the traffic lights regulate not only the flow of cars, but the flow of life as well.

On our way to Square St. Louis, Montreal’s bohemian hangout, we cut across the campus of internationally renowned McGill University. It was autumn; school was in session. We turned a corner and happened upon a hot-dog-eating contest. This isn’t something you expect to see in a city like Montreal. In fact, it’s not something you expect to see anywhere outside Coney Island or Illinois.

We stopped to watch, transfixed in horror. Only then did we realize how close we still were to the United States. Parisians would never have permitted such a spectacle. They would have strung up the participants and force-fed them pâté de foie gras.

McGill University: Hard to believe that something so ugly could take place in a place so picturesque.

But we weren’t there to judge them; we were there to score free beer. We posed as college students, but we were a few years past college age and were quickly outed. We tried to pawn ourselves off as visiting professors. That didn’t work, either. We left empty-handed, with nothing to sustain us except that memory. Unlike the winner of that contest, however, we feel no pain while regurgitating this morsel.

The Paris of the North? Not bloody likely. It’s a pretty place, sitting on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, but it’s not as raucous as Las Vegas, Nevada, or as picturesque as Savannah, Georgia. While Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, all that might mean to you is getting to say “Mercy buckets” with a straight face.

Lessons Learned: If you decide to vacation in Montreal, the City of Festivals, remember that it’s just like most other major cities. It has its history and culture, sure, but every major city has a history and culture. Expect to find pleasant tree-lined rues. Expect to eat well. Expect to see beauty in the hills, buildings, parks, and people. But don’t expect anything like Paris.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport
Native Population: 1,650,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: The Underground City (the mall), the Montreal Casino, Olympic Stadium (home to the Canadiens), Mount Royal on a clear day, and many festivals, all held in the short summer.
Final Point of Interest: Montreal is home to Cirque du Soleil, which—unlike the city that spawned it—is an entertaining circus.

18 July 2009

Quote of the Month

These days, we prefer to travel by car. Air travel is just too exhausting, not to mention invasive. Anyone who’s tried to board an airplane with a simple bottle of water understands this. Seriously, we don’t know how airlines stay in business given the way they treat their “customers.” This month’s quote was stolen from a published source. Please don’t tell on us:

“There is not much to say about most airplane journeys. Anything remarkable must be disastrous, so you define a good flight by negatives: you didn’t get hijacked, you didn’t crash, you didn’t throw up, you weren’t late, you weren’t nauseated by the food.”

–Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express (1979)

11 July 2009

Utah Joe and the Temple of Doom

Here we are back to our old ways: dissing whole groups of people for fun and nonprofit. This latest story might upset some of you, but—as they say in New York City—so what? If you’re in that small minority of people who find fault with any slur, then you shouldn’t be reading this blog. Furthermore, you’re obviously not drinking enough . . . because then you’d understand that slurs happen all the time. —MB & JS
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Every year millions of people, not all of them Mormon, vacation in Utah. The National Parks—Arches, Bryce, and Zion, in particular—lure outdoor enthusiasts with their natural beauty and unique charms. The mountains surrounding Salt Lake City (home of the 2002 Winter Olympics) beckon skiers from every corner of the globe. Hollywood’s elite descend upon the region annually for the Sundance Film Festival. Utah has something for every adventurer, unless, of course, you’re a surfer.

People fly in from all over the globe to be outdoors in Utah, and yet Temple Square, sitting smack in the center of urban Salt Lake City, draws more tourists than any other attraction. When you’re in San Antonio, you’ve got to tour the Alamo. When in Philadelphia, you have to stop by Independence Hall. When in Salt Lake City, apparently, you must visit Temple Square. It’s an unwritten rule, like kissing a cop’s ass to avoid a speeding ticket. (Wait, you mean no one else does that?)

Back when we were young and impressionable, we found ourselves trapped in Salt Lake City, so we paid a visit to Temple Square (although it’s actually free). The site is home to the state’s dominant religion: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka The Mormons, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. We hadn’t come to unearth our family tree—Temple Square includes a world-class genealogy research center—nor tune in to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We certainly weren’t there in search of the white shirts, black ties, and three-speed bicycles common to their door-to-door salesmen . . . oops, we mean missionaries. Our mission was much simpler: a history lesson.

With nowhere else to go and all afternoon to get there, we dropped into line, eager to learn about Joseph Smith and his religion’s mammoth, spectacular Temple. We followed a crowd into the pristine Square, where we discovered our tour included all the exhibits in two Visitor’s Centers. The tour did not include, ironically, the Temple itself. We could marvel at its six-spire design, we could graffiti its walls (just kidding), but we were prohibited from stepping inside. That privilege was reserved for believers only. We considered converting just to get out of the sun, but we’d given up religion for Lent a few years back, and it seemed a shame to fall off the wagon now.

Beautiful, but not included on the tour.

So we took in the rest of the Square. While we have nothing against Mormons, we expected more from a religion’s holiest of holy sites. Jerusalem has temples, mosques, and a wall you can wail on. The Vatican has Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Temple Square is comprised of one locked door and two Visitors Centers, neither of which serve alcohol, since Utah is a “dry” state, prohibiting the public sale of alcohol.

As parched as Utah’s deserts, we wandered toward the South Visitors Center, in search of a water fountain, a soda machine, or a fire hydrant. Instead, we found our history lesson. Brigham Young, we learned, selected the Temple site. The hard-working Mormons, we discovered, took forty painstaking years to build it. The South Center taught us more than we wanted to know, more than we could possible remember. It was like cramming for a test. We flunked.

Afterward, we watched a few “educational videos” about strengthening families and building community. Strong male leads spoke while their multiple wives waited silently behind them. OK, we’re exaggerating, but the women really didn’t say a word.

All the while, something besides the lack of alcohol just didn’t seem right. They say youth is wasted on the young, but they weren’t talking about the Mormon young. The youth of Temple Square weren’t wasted at all. As cheerful as we found every guide, however, as casual as he or she inevitably tried to appear, the distinct specter of Stepford threatened the entire proceedings. Every answer to every question sounded rehearsed. Every smile looked deliberate; every nod, wink, and gesture mechanical. It was spooky.

So we got the hell out of there. Far from being an educational tour de force, our tour through Temple Square proved to be a bad trip back in time, to the ’50s . . . the 1850s.

Lessons Learned: There’s a lot to do in Utah besides the Great Outdoors. Salt Lake City is a metropolitan city, much more liberal and secular than the Mormons generally prefer. If you find yourself there, for whatever reason in whatever circumstance, you can find action and excitement. Just not in Temple Square.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 4
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Salt Lake City International Airport
Native Population: 182,000
Normal Attractions: This Is The Place Heritage Park, Hogle Zoo, Olympic Cauldron Park, Trolley Square shopping district, and everything else you’d expect to find in a big city . . . except a cold beer in a public place.
Final Point of Interest: The second largest city parade (after the Days of ’47 Parade) is the gay pride parade. We bet the Mormons love that.